Various radio stations, 1995, by: Bob Costas
Bruce: I'd made a record, or part of a record last year, that I didn't finish and I worked on it quite a bit and I listened to it just before maybe before last Christmas time or something and I said gee, you know, it's not quite right. And I worked with the band on the Greatest Hits record. There's something about the band that always has sort of drawn me outside of myself to write more about the world outside, I suppose. I think I wrote GOTJ originally as a rock song for the E Street Band, thinking I might use it as one of the extra songs on the GH record. And for one reason or another that didn't happen, but it kind of set me in that direction a little bit. And I had this song Straight Time which is on this record. And I had that for about a year or so and I liked its basic feeling. And as I was working at that time - you follow where your voice is, you don't particularly choose where your voice is at any given moment, I don't think so and at this particular time in my work life for some reason it seemed like my voice is where this record ended up. It was more of a folk voice. That seemed to be something that was just saying hey, work over here. I didn't sit down and plan to particularly make this type of record or not. Parts of it presented itself to me and then you sort of follow it, you follow it along.
Bob: Bruce, Tom Joad of course, from John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, but it's clear that your inspiration for this comes more from the John Ford film, not just for this track, but the whole album has a cinematic feel. I know you're a fan of John Ford.
Bruce: Yeah, that picture I guess I saw in the late 70s and it had a really deep effect on me. I think I'd read some John Steinbeck, probably earlier than that - in high school and there was something about the film that sort of crystallized the story for me. And it always stayed with me after that, for some reason there was something in that picture that always resonated throughout almost all of my other work. It was just an image that popped out as I was sittin around on the couch messing around with the guitar.
Bob: Do you remember the first time that you watched Henry Fonda give that speech at the end?
Bruce: Oh yeah, I cried.
Bob: [quotes Henry Fonda speech reference in lyrics, in a Barbara Walters-like effort to make Bruce cry ;-)]
Bruce: That was a very powerful speech for me. I think to some degree the things you write are a conversation with yourself. I wasn't... I think that's probably what that song was to me, it was a conversation I was having with myself. Not about "oh, brother where art thou," or "where is this in the world today," it was just "where is it in me?" I think you gotta start with that question. If you can get people to ask that question then the song's done its job.
Bob: You've often come to the theme of a person in difficult circumstances trying to find some nobility some dignity in those circumstances, maybe not in a dramatic way that everyone can see, but in some small way that would have a redemptive power for that person. And in these cuts, I find a little bit of that but also a lot of resignation on the part of these characters that maybe they're just not even gonna find that little bit of dignity.
Bruce: Well, I guess I sort of see there's a little bit of it out there. I don't really start from any political point of view - no conscious one. I suppose everybody carries their politics innately and emotionally in their psychology in some fashion. But I think that's what's been happening. I think that the American idea of equal opportunity obviously it hasn't been realized. And I think what's worse, every study that's come out about the division of wealth in society over the past ten or fifteen years has shown that the middle class has been getting smaller and people have been getting farther and farther apart. I think that while it's something that hasn't led to, say, riots, it leads to diminished hopes, diminished expectations, diminished possibilities. And so that feeling which is just something that I sort of - like I said I don't sit down and start from any particular conscious point of view, but I think that feeling of the way things feel to me right now, that colors the stories and the characters' lives on the record.
Bob: Like we said earlier, GOTJ is based much more on the movie, or draws its inspiration much more from the movie than from the book, and you think about the movie and this whole family making its way out west in this little rickety car, and nothing about their circumstances is nurturing, nothing should give them reason to be optimistic, and they're trying to forge some sense of community among themselves and find something that's real that can help them transcend these circumstances. And that theme shows up in a lot of your work through the years, doesn't it?
Bruce: I guess, see my folks in 1969, I was 19, my folks went west. They went to California to start a new life. And they, it was my mom, my dad and my little sister, I think they had saved $3000, and I remember I stayed in New Jersey because I'd gotten very involved with the band and I guess that'd become my family at that point in time, and it was also where I could make a living. I went out to California, I tried to make a living and I couldn't get a job. I couldn't get a job where somebody'd pay me to play. And back home I had two or three clubs where I could come up with a hundred, a hundred-twenty-five, or a hundred-fifty bucks a week, which was enough to survive on. I was sleeping with 6 other guys in an apartment and everybody's chippin in a few bucks for rent. But my folks went in 69, they had three grand, they slept two nights in the car and one night in a motel, and that was what they did. They drove into California, they didn't know anybody... I had a girlfriend who was one of the first sort of hippies in the area, she was the only person anyone knew who'd ever been to San Francisco (laughs), and she sent em to Sausalito, (laughs) which was sort of, I guess, this sort of hipsters' enclave at the time...
Bob: Was she sure to wear a pretty flower in her hair?
Bruce: (laughs) So my folks pull straight from New Jersey into Sausalito, where of course, they realize very quickly that they don't belong there. And my mother claims they pulled into a gas station and asked the attendant, "Hey, where do people like us live?" (laughs) and somebody said, "Oh, you live on the peninsula." That's her story, so they started a whole new life out there, they did well, but they struggled pretty hard. I went out there - there was a time when I'd never been on an airplane, till I made a record, nobody could afford an airplane ticket. To get to see them about once every year or so, me and a buddy of mine we'd drive across the country go three days straight, we'd save - whatever, a hundred bucks or a couple hundred dollars and drive straight through. I went to California, I tried to, I did some auditioning, but I realized really quickly that I wasn't gonna be able to live out there. I wasn't gonna be able to... you know there were just a lot of musicians, and while it was a much bigger music scene, I was a nobody, and I realized very quickly that while someone might let you play, they're not gonna pay you. So I stayed about two months and I realized I was gonna have to be living off my folks and I didn't want to do that, so I went back to New Jersey. And I don't know if that's had something to do with part of what I've written about. Maybe it's some of my own experience and some of just that's the American story. The American story is transience and the idea of "over the rise," which is less now, I suppose, but I think it's some ingrained part of, not just the American spirit but human spirit in general. My characters have always been on the move going someplace, searching for something - whether it's a better life or running from something with the idea that somehow moving will make you better, it'll heal you inside.
Bob: This may not be the exact quote, but you said something like this once: "I was 24 years old, I was sitting at home in New Jersey asking myself the question 'Is love real?' and if people have followed my characters through all the years, they can find a common thread with them and they see that Luckytown is where those characters wind up." That's what it was at the time you made that statement. Is TGOTJ where those characters wind up or where their thoughts wind up now, or is it more a nod of recognition at a path that all of us could conceivably take if we make the wrong choices or if our circumstances aren't so lucky?
Bruce: I guess I don't like to use the idea of "wind up" I guess you don't "wind up" till it's over. (laughs ) There's a lot of different things, questions, I tried to work through in my work over the years. The idea of "is love real" yeah, I think it is, but it's hard to find. And it can be hard to find evidence of it. I'd written I think all of this record. And I was in my library one night and pulled a book out called Journey to Nowhere, which was a book I'd bought years before and I hadn't read. The text is by a fellow named Dale Maharidge and there's some really great photos by a fellow named Michael Williamson, and basically what they did, they went out on the road and they road the trains from, I think, St. Louis to Oregon and it documented a lot of what had been happening to a group of Americans in the latter half of the 80s - the people that the trickle- down economy never trickled down to. It's a book that makes very real, puts real faces on what it's like if you slip through those cracks. I was very frightened, I remember I read it all in one night and I closed it - my God, you never know what tomorrow brings. It strikes some sort of fear: what if you couldn't take care of your family, what if you had to leave them, what if you couldn't be home with your sons and your daughters, what if you couldn't pay for their health care, and couldn't provide them with the health care that they need? What if that was your kids? I know how deadly important my job is to me. What if I didn't have that job? Or what if I couldn't do that job after I did it for 20 years or 25 years?
Bob: or what if the job you had...
Bob: ...didn't have anything to do with anything that really meant something to you?
Bruce: Right, so these are all questions that I don't know, I ask myself a lot I guess, and hey I've had enormous amount of luck and fortune and have worked hard, but that other thing, I don't know, it never feels that far away, and I think that it's as far away as the guy next to you. It's not that far.
Bob: If you believe as you said once that people listen to your songs not to find out about you, but to find out about themselves. What do you think they'll come away from this record thinking or thinking about?
Bruce: Basically, I think I tried to sit down and feel... I think your music always ends up being two things... one it's probably a photograph of your own inner landscape... emotional landscape to some degree. And possibly your character in some fashion - how you perceive your life, lives around you, the place you live. And then it's a picture, hopefully, I sat down and tried to reflect what the country feels like to me right now. The bottom line. That's the line that people will always judge... America will always be judged against that, that's what the American idea was...some concept of shared burden. I guess what I was trying to do probably for myself was to put myself back in touch with those ideas, those values. I have children now. I'm a grown man. Now's not the time to think about what I want to be like, it's the time for me to be what I want to be like. So I think I was tying to really get myself back in touch with those, hey, with my family, my children, the man you want to be and what you want the place you live in to be like. I don't know how other people will... I sorta go for that first and I assume that if it's working for me, then it'll work for my audience or whoever listens to it. That's really... I think that's probably where I'm coming from.
Bob: That was Youngstown from TGOTJ. Wanna talk a little bit about the inspiration for that?
Bruce: That was a song that really - I go back to this book called Journey to Nowhere - I had written the whole record and then I read the book, and Youngstown and a song called The New Timer are really drawn from a lot of the information and the stories that were in this particular book. I guess that was something that probably out of all the things on the record maybe that connects the most directly to something if you were a fan of the River or just the story of post-industrial America, what happens when your job disappears. You were able to make a good living for 20 years and all of a sudden that's not there for you and maybe you can find a job that pays half as much or a quarter as much and you're 45 years old, you're 50 years old. What happens when the craft you've learned, the skill you've learned... I think, hey what if I couldn't... my music ability that's all that I have, I'm not a multitalented person, I have a talent in a specific area and I fumble around every place else. So I wanted to re-engage some of those ideas and some of those issues and that's really where that song came out of.
Bob: How much of your present approach on this album is attributable ? even if it's a small amount - to some self-doubt about whether you'd become, for whatever reasons, too mainstream - the whole idea that celebrity is the natural enemy of integrity, so you'd better deliver a counter-punch.
Bruce Oh, I don't know. I'm not sure I really... I don't sort of steer myself by those particular lights. And I have a variety of different feelings about it. A lot of the things I really liked were things that were very mainstream. The stuff that moved me and changed my life were mainstream records. They were from people who came from outside of the mainstream but changed the mainstream to accommodate who they were by the force of their abilities and their talent and their ideas and their presence. Those are the artists that I admired a lot, whether it was Dylan... Hey, before "Like a Rolling Stone" you couldn't sing like that and get on the radio. They couldn't get on the radio like that. I've also said the same thing with before Nirvana came out with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" you couldn't sound like that and get on top 40 radio. And I always believed that it was a valuable risk to take. It was a funny situation in that I think that I was essentially probably a child of Elvis Presley initially, but I grew up in the 60s and Dylan's work and later Woody Guthrie's also meant an enormous amount to me so I sorta got caught in between... those are some different roots in certain ways. The things that meant a lot to me when I was young were the things that came across the AM radio. I didn't live in an environment where there was a lot of cultural education, we weren't exposed to things that were outside of the mainstream for the most part. The mainstream was what you had and in your small town what came across the radio was... I found it very liberating and I found it very meaningful. I think I incorporated that as a part of. I had my choices. Way back, way way back in 1975 I could have not have done those interviews and probably not have been on the cover of both Time and Newsweek, and I could have possibly made some different choices in '85, but I was very interested in where that road led and in finding out about who I was and what I could do or would do under those circumstances. Cause I thought I'd do something different, and in some ways I did and in some ways I didn't. And those are the things that interested me. I think that at this point if I had anything to say about the particular level of celebrity, which I don't have now, ten years ago it was different, was that at some point it felt pretty overwhelming, and I think at some point it overwhelms the story you're telling and trying to tell.
Bob: This much is also undeniable. Without everything that went before the audience would be smaller for what you're trying to say here. There's no fighting that.
Bruce: Right now, there'd be almost no audience. (laughs)
Bob: On it's own merits, no matter how high those merits are, absent what went before, this is a record that only a few people hear.
Bruce: You are absolutely right. And that's the facts. And that's something that I've been conscious of that sort of throughout my career, I've kind of made one sort of record and I'll go off an make another one. And that balance has always felt right to me. I know that an audience is hard to find. And it's easy if you've had one for a long time, it's easy to take that audience for granted and think oh, hey, people just come when I play, they just buy my records when they come out. But the truth is that that audience - I was years on the circuit, years on the circuit I studied my craft in bars since I was 14 years old, that's 32 years ago, and it happened over a long period of time. And it is something of tremendous value. At the same time, not just necessarily any audience is of tremendous value. I think that if you subvert what you're saying, what you're doing, what you want your work or your life to be about, then you've lost yourself and the essence of what you do.
Bob: Do you feel like you ever did that?
Bruce: I don't think so. I think basically, I've made the records that I've wanted to make. I think that in the course of probably the BITUSA record, the story I was living overshadowed the story I was telling, and that is the consequence of a certain amount of maybe success and fame, and that's just something you learn. Not with everybody, not with my core audience, and I think that there's a few things on that record that are probably... certainly the title song, which I knew that when I wrote it that it was gonna have impact. But ... My Hometown, I didn't know people were gonna respond like they did one way or the other. But I think that it's something that I'm very very cautious of right now, and I'm really, I feel like I'm just out there checking it out. I'm trying to find... I want this record to be heard, at the same time, I want it to be understood.
Bob: Seems to me like TGOTJ is a record that people will have to listen to a half dozen times before they begin to form their feelings about it.
Bruce: I don't know...
Bob: The first couple times through, I'm not so sure you're going to get it all.
Bruce: I don't know. That's for the listener. I've heard it a lot of times. I haven't heard it in a long... since we finished it off. I think I can have the experience of the record, I can't quite have that initial listening experience that you're talking about. That's something I have as each song goes down, and that's slightly different because if I don't think I'm getting it, I move on to something else. Sometimes I'll go back, like Straight Time, I played it once, I put it away and basically, I threw it away. And Jon came out and he has a tendency... he always asks my engineer "What's laying around that hasn't been played or I haven't heard?" I think my engineer pulled that one out and he came back and said, "Hey, wait a minute." So sometimes you don't know; sometimes you do something that was better than you thought it was.
Bob: When people come to see you on this tour, obviously they're going to see an acoustic show, not an acoustic version of songs previously recorded...
Bruce: It's not Unplugged, it's not Unplugged...
Bob: Right. So they're gonna see an acoustic show. There's an interesting contrast in that...
Bruce: What the show is, it's a folk show, to put it in sort of in the sense that I'm not sorta doing my favorites or their favorites, or the hits or whatever you call it I'm concentrating very specifically on this particular record and material that feels like it complements it. It's a show that... it's a quiet show. There's a lot of focus in it. So it's pretty different.
Bob: I guess there is some feeling on the part of fans of an individual or a group, that when they go to see a concert, that concert should be an updated version of the catalog. We're gonna get all the classics, plus we're gonna get the handful from the new release that will join that group of classics, and that's not what's going to happen here.
Bruce: I think there's a time to do that. We'd played a couple nights with the E Street Band and we played a bunch of the old songs, and it was fun to do I enjoyed it and it's something where it's a departure. I really haven't done this before. I've played a few isolated shows. I've played Neil Young's Bridge Benefit a few times acoustically, and I've played a benefit for the Christic Institute acoustically with Jackson Browne. Then I started out on my own, when I got signed I was playing Max's Kansas City by myself with acoustic guitar so in a funny way it's a throwback to what that was. But it's something I haven't really done before; it's something I've wanted to do for a long time. It really pares everything away and makes what you're about and what you're doing real clear, and that's what I'm interested in communicating right now. I'm real excited about it and I think the fans are going to enjoy it.
Bob: Everyone wonders, no matter how much they enjoy this record, no matter how much they enjoy this tour, when will Bruce be back with the E Street Band? So now I've asked the question. I've discharged my obligation, now you discharge yours.
Bruce: (laughs) Oh, we had a great time doing the GH, and what can I say, it's a special group of people and I'm sure at some point we'll be doing something. I hate to predict because I'm always wrong myself, and I follow, when I said you sort of follow your voice, and the voice of this particular record was something that felt like, yeah, was just something I heard in my head right now, whether you hear the world speaking to you or something inside you speaking to you that moves you in a particular direction, and that's really, that leads you hopefully to your most honest work, hopefully to your best work, hopefully to your honest job. But then also if you make a quiet record you tend to want to make some noise maybe later or something. I'd want to be able to call on the guys, and if everybody felt like it and if I was gonna make a rock record right now that'd be the first thing that I'd do. Outside of my family, that's the most important relationship in my life, that and my relationship with my audience.
Bob: Do you still stand by your statement that the two best days of your life were the day you picked up the guitar and the day you learned how to put it down?
Bruce: Oh, those days have been supplanted now. I guess the best days of my life were certainly the birth of my children. I think any parent always says that. And finding the thing that moves you... something to do... finding something to do is really really important. I think maybe that that's why I'm attuned to that in others. Something that is so important to me, it was so important, and it's been so rewarding. That was the American idea was that everybody would have that opportunity, that chance. That's an idea worth fighting for.
Bob: The easy, glib thing is when people say when someone gets successful and they have material wealth they get out of touch with the troubles of people on the margins. I think that's too easy, but if a person truly finds happiness - and it seems like you're happier than you've ever been for a stretch of time now in your life - if the person finds happiness, is there a danger that the artistic edge can be muted?
Bruce: No, no, because... it depends, once again any of those things you can't generalize. Life's circumstances change people in a lot of different ways. I know you can make a lot of money and be isolated, but I knew some hard-core isolated people who had nothing and who cut themselves off. I've said in the past, you can isolate yourself with a six pack of beer. I don't buy those types of generalizations, I think it depends on the individual and the idea that happiness somehow mutes your work, I'm not so sure. It depends what drives you, it depends what you want and the things that you still... I still search for the big part of the meaning of my life in my work...[tape cut here flipping sides, sorry] ...since you were born isn't something that disappears. I think anybody who was ever seriously kicked around never ever forgets. You know that stuff never leaves you, and I think if you're a person whose job is to mine your imagination, you keep every aspect of your life wide open. It's never a closed book. You never say, "Well, that was then." It's always now. It's all always now. And so you draw from that well as you can.
Transcriber's note: The broadcast on my local station was a little flaky: Missed the first question, for example, and Youngstown was cut after the break. Also, for your reading pleasure and my transcribing sanity, I've omitted 459 "ya knows." Insert 'em at will if you want the true flavor of the interview.